“Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional.”
As I wrote in a previous post, there are worse things than conflict, including perpetually running away from one you need to address. One commenter on that piece made a great observation: “Honesty and conflict resolution are so much easier in theory than in practice.”
Well, there’s no conflict with me here on that idea.
I have lived with this difference when I was newly polyamorous.
“So… How do you make it work?” I asked my friend Megan after she told me she was polyamorous and explained what that was.
“Simple,” she said. “Open, honest communication.”
And that would become our mantra. As Seth and I discussed opening up and as he and I came to date Megan.
It was beautiful, elegant in its simplicity. The one law that we would come back to. Were you engaging in open, honest communication? If not, why not? Get open. Get honest.
And a lot of the times? It worked.
But sometimes, not so much.
Being honest with other people begins with self-honesty. And unfortunately, even the most self-aware and courageous people can occasionally run into situations where they falter with their assessment of their emotional state, their needs. Self-honesty is not a one-time fix. Or a static ability. It is an ongoing process, one that we must exercise to improve. It is not easy. Some realizations are unpleasant and painful. But long term, ownership of these is a freeing proposition. Especially being free of the quest to be perfect.
But let’s say everyone involved is reasonably good with self-honesty, and the situation is one where people aren’t defensive and are sharing well.
That’s it, right? We’ve shared what we feel. Conflict solved?
It’s easy to pare conflict resolution down to a simple binary of “not addressing conflict” versus “addressing conflict,” but in reality, there a variety of ways that we can handle conflict.
One popular model by researchers Kilmann and Thomas breaks styles of conflict resolution down into 5 categories:
This is when you attempt to resolve a conflict by simply avoiding the issue.
When It’s Used: When the issue is trivial. Or when engaging in the situation will result in damage no matter your actions.
One place I see people use this frequently is when two of their friends are fighting with one another. A common practice is to refuse to take sides or comment on the conflict and to remain neutral.
Another scenario is when you disagree with someone about something that doesn’t matter a lot to you, to them, or both. Not worth bringing up.
People have also used this tactic effectively when a conflict arises that seems to be an isolated incident. If it’s only happened one time, and people all seem to be acting in good faith, it can be appropriate to not raise the issue.
Drawbacks: Since this a tactic that’s low cost in time and energy and plays into most people’s natural fears and negative perceptions of conflict, it’s often overused and applied inappropriately. This can result in larger conflicts that are more difficult to solve.
Additionally, if a one-time isolated event becomes a pattern but was not at least brought up to other person or people involved, they might not remember the initial incident. And in this scenario, you may very well find yourself in an argument about whether something did or didn’t happen. One that’s impossible to really prove. Cognitive science has well demonstrated that even the best memories are imprecise, and the boxing match of Yes You Did versus No I Didn’t is exhausting. Spoiler: Everyone loses.
This is when you give in and accept what others want, even if this comes at great expense to yourself.
When It’s Used: When you believe that the other person or people involved know more than you and has a better solution. Or when you feel like the potential cost to you is not worth the damage to the relationship.
However, handling a conflict with an accommodating style can also be rather strategic and savvy. It can be used appropriately on a current conflict that you may be able to leverage that good will into getting something else you care more about.
Drawbacks: You don’t get what you want. And it may cause you a great amount of consternation and inconvenience.
Additionally, if you are wrong in your belief that the others have superior knowledge and solution, the situation can worsen. This can end up damaging the relationship more in the long term.
This is a style in which everyone involved contributes to the discussion, and the main goal for everyone involved is a win-win scenario.
When It’s Used: Complicated situations where the right course of action isn’t clear, and the outcome is important.
Drawbacks: It requires a high level of trust and patience among all parties. It’s also very consuming of both time and energy.
Additionally, establishing “all those involved” can be a sticky point. This rears its head often in polyamorous situations. Who should be part of the problem-solving process for a specific conflict? The direct parties involved in an incident? Metamours? Telemours?
There’s no one right answer for all situations
Erring in either direction can have consequences: Involving unnecessary people can result in “too many cooks in the kitchen.” The conflict can take longer to solve and be solved with a poorer solution (due to the potential inclusion of perspectives with limited firsthand experience of any of the important tenets of the conflict).
On the other hand, omitting people crucial to the achievement of the win-win scenario can cause resentment and lead to incomplete solutions.
It’s a tricky balance.
In general, I’m a big fan of this style and consider it a gold standard of conflict resolution — however, I have seen it pan out horribly when not applied well.
If Collaborating is seeking a win-win scenario, Competing is its shadow: A strategy that achieves win-lose. You impose your solution with limited to no openness to the input of others, even if it your solution comes at great cost to others.
When It’s Used: It’s not secret I’m not a huge fan of competition and prefer social facilitation. But Competing style does have its place. It can be appropriate to use this style when a decision needs to be made rather quickly, for example, an emergency situation that requires immediate action and in which you are reasonably sure that you are doing the right thing.
Drawbacks: Zero sum thinking is terrible for your psychological health. Overuse of this strategy can strain relationships and lead to resentment and even retaliation. In addition, many conflicts will be improperly solved and addressed with insufficient solutions.
The final style of conflict resolution is the lose-lose situation. In this style, no one really achieves what they want.
When It’s Used: While it sounds like a real bummer, this strategy can be appropriate when a temporary solution needs to be in place until a better one can be implemented. No one is thrilled about it. But it’s better than avoiding the situation altogether.
Drawbacks: People sometimes fall prey to using this style when in fact Collaborating would produce a better solution because they are discouraged by frustration, undervalue the importance of the problem, or underestimate the amount of time and resources they have to solve the problem.
What Conflict Styles Do You Use?
A positive first step uses that self-honesty I mentioned at the beginning of the piece. Think about how you have addressed conflicts in the past.
Do you have a default style?
Can you think of some situations where you used one style and some situations where you used another? What were the outcomes? How did it go?
Consider the alternative styles in those same scenarios. How might have the outcome been different?